Council meeting stalls over legal payment

Published 1:39 pm Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Selma City Council pulled double duty Monday afternoon, launching into a work session at 4 p.m. and immediately rolling into a budget hearing a little more than an hour later, but the first meeting got bogged down when Selma City Councilman John Leashore took exception with a recent legal payment.

During the council’s last meeting, a legal payment of more than $4,300 was tacked onto the night’s consent agenda but then tabled after concerns from Leashore.

Despite that, the bill was paid.

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Leashore blasted the payment, noting that it wasn’t discussed at that week’s work session and was tabled in a vote the next day.

Leashore claimed that the legal fees stem from a series of interviews conducted by the Alabama Attorney General’s office with various members of the council, during which some council members retained legal representation on the city’s dime.

“They cannot expect this city to pay for their legal representation,” Leashore said of his unspecified colleagues.

Selma City Councilwoman Angela Benjamin, who was overseeing the meeting in the absence of Selma City Council President Corey Bowie, called on Selma City Treasurer Ronita Wade to explain the situation.

Wade admitted that she made the payment, adding that the payment had been approved beforehand by Bowie – generally, Wade holds checks until they are approved; in this instance, she was not informed that the payment was tabled and moved ahead.

“I didn’t know that there was a controversy,” Wade said.

“That was a costly mistake, Miss Wade,” Leashore replied.

For her part, Thomas asserted that the initial payment had to be approved by Bowie to allow Montgomery attorney Bobby Segall, who represents the council in other matters, to represent individual council members in these interviews.

Selma City Councilwoman Miah Jackson, who earlier in the meeting had harped on the need for the council to rein in unapproved spending on the part of the executive branch, thanked Wade for her candidness and again called on the council to take action to secure expenditures.

“This is the exact reason that nothing should be paid until it comes before the council,” Jackson said, adding that there are “500 pages” of unapproved expenditures from city hall.

In the end, Selma City Councilwoman Susan Youngblood called for calm and asked the council to reserve judgment until it had an opportunity to convene with Bowie.

“It’s all of our job to question things we feel uncomfortable about,” Youngblood said. “I’m hopeful that President Bowie can clear [this] up.”

Elsewhere in the meeting, Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sheryl Smedley brought a proposal for a mural to be placed on the side of the building at 14 Broad St.

The mural would be painted on aluminum panels, so they could be moved if necessary in the future, and depict in sepia tones various icons from the Civil Rights Movement in Selma.

The work will be done by artist Shelia Ferrell and be paid for by the Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past in Youngstown, Ohio, which sends students to the area annually.

Among those to be memorialized in the mural are activist Hosea Williams, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-GA,who was badly injured on Bloody Sunday, Universalist Minister James Reeb, who was murdered in Selma days after Bloody Sunday, activist Amelia Boynton Robinson and others.

“I think this is good for the City of Selma,” Thomas said.

Sam Walker also addressesdthe council on behalf of the Jubilee Bridge Crossing Committee, who noted that the 2020 event marks the 55th year since Bloody Sunday and the Voting Rights Act – as such, the group is looking to host a re-enactment walk from Selma to Montgomery and is looking for financial support from the city.

Walker noted that the City of Montgomery is on board with the idea, but wants to see the level of interest from the City of Selma before making a commitment.

For his part, Leashore supported the idea – the councilman noted that his mother marched and was injured on Bloody Sunday so, to him, the event has special meaning and deserves as much support as the city can muster.

After a brief recess, the council reconvened for a budget hearing, looking first at public safety funds allocated to the Selma Fire Department (SFD) and the Selma Police Department (SPD).

SFD Acting Chief Chris Graham noted that the increase in wages and salaries represents a $2,000 for all employees of the department aside from fire investigators, which recently received a pay increase.

Most of the department’s budget remained the same, aside from a $10,000 increase for vehicle maintenance, which Graham believes will be enough to pay for repairs to the department’s ladder truck, as well as an increase in travel and training funding for the department to recruit and train up to 10 new firefighters.

Additionally, the SFD budget calls for a one-time expenditure of $20,000 to purchase equipment for the department’s fire investigators.

SPD Interim Chief Robert Green spoke next and, like Graham, said that his department’s budget had largely remained unchanged.

Leashore brought up “confusion” among some council members regarding Natasha Fowlkes’ position in the department – Fowlkes has been at the center of an argument over defunded positions, among which was her position as a captain in the SPD – and Green confirmed that her position as captain is accounted for in the budget.